The Case for the 2017 Pittsburgh Steelers: Part Three—Defense and Special Teams
by Ivan Cole
Editor’s note: Ordinarily I would have put up a post today with an opponent preview, but the truth is, nobody knows who the heck the Cleveland Browns are at the moment. The one thing we can be sure of (I think) is that they would like to make a statement on Sunday. They will have at least one fewer playmaker than expected to do so, though, as Myles Garrett, their top-of-the-first-round pick, the man who asserted that one of his top priorities was to “chop down” Ben Roethlisberger, got injured in practice and is almost certainly out, at least for this week. Hopefully this doesn’t give the offensive line a false sense of security. So instead of reading my wholly unsupported speculations about what the Browns will look like on Sunday, you get the privilege of reading more of Ivan’s brilliant writing:
Where things currently stand
I have been asserting throughout that everything about this season, from the outcome to the methods that might be resorted to achieve it would deviate from what many of us had come to view as normal. Usually by Labor Day the deal is mainly done with the 53-man roster and practice squad set. But in the interim between my setting down these words and the time they reach your eyes significant changes could well have occurred. So, with the understanding that this may still be a work in progress rather than a definitive preview of the 2017 season let’s bring a few things spoken of previously up to date.
Shock and awe
A few hours before the roster deadline I glibly mentioned to Rebecca about the upcoming “bloodletting”. There was no real secret here. A perfect storm was brewing, involving a new, onetime orgy of cuts mandated by the league, an embarrassment of riches in many position groups with little pressure release in the form of substandard performances or significant injuries in terms of numbers or severity, and a brutal sense of urgency emanating from team leadership. The train wasn’t just moving, it was about to jump into warp.
Nonetheless, even with that foreknowledge, when it went down Rebecca used terms like “shocking” to describe it all. Starters and star quality players were acquired. Steelers starters and former high draft picks traded. Steady, contributing veterans along with promising young talent unceremoniously waived. All the moves made sense, particularly if you understood that the bias was about now, not later, what are you doing today, not what might you be able to do tomorrow. Based on that logic, players such as Johnny Maxey, Steve Johnson, Senquez Golson, David Johnson, Cobi Hamilton, Demarcus Ayers, Colin Holba and Knile Davis are gone. [Although Steven Johnson is now back, for the moment.] For now, earning spots and a chance to be a part of Steelers championship lore are Terrell Watson, Kameron Canaday, Justin Hunter, Mike Hilton, Coty Sensabaugh, Tyson Alualu and Joe Haden.
Though unforgiving in its singular focus on the goal of a Super Bowl, the process was not without Steelers compassion. Ross Cockrell and Sammie Coates were not orphaned, they have new homes. Fitz Toussaint was brought back via the practice squad. However, if I were Dan McCullers, Xavier Grimble or Jerald Hawkins, among others, I would be sleeping with one eye open over the next few days.
Whatever is driving this sense of urgency with the team it is not concerns about job security in leadership. GM Kevin Colbert has joined head coach Mike Tomlin in receiving a contract extension. Like Tomlin, this was a move that was accepted and celebrated as wholly appropriate. This can be easily summarized by noting that all but one of this year’s draft choices made it on to a championship caliber team. The last two seasons had similar results supported by wise free agency decisions. We might also acknowledge an off season with complete stability among the coaching staff.
The NFL is in trouble (cont).
National syndicated columnist George Will just joined the conversation concerning CTEs. Timed to appear at the point when fan optimism and enthusiasm is at an optimal level, this marks a mainstreaming of the issue, and its most challenging statement may have been contained in this line:
Many will make increasingly informed choices to accept the risk-reward calculus. But because today’s risk-averse middle-class parents put crash helmets on their tykes riding tricycles, football participation will skew to the uninformed and economically desperate. But will informed spectators become queasy about deriving pleasure from an entertainment with such human costs?
As exciting as the offense could be, the defense could match or exceed it in interest and intrigue. Indeed, it is still under construction as I write. When I began, Steve Johnson was gone, now he’s back, along with veteran newcomer J.J. Wilcox, and Jordan Dangerfield is gone. One thing that we can say from the outset is that wherever this unit starts, given both its youth and the fact that there are likely to be six new starters from the group that began last season, they should be much better later in the season.
The Defensive Line
As talented and deep as any group in recent memory. In the Steelers’ system, the D-line tends to be overlooked, in part because it can’t escape the shadows of the glamour associated with the linebacker corps, or the drama and occasional dysfunction of the secondary. That could change this season. If Javon Hargrave and LT Walton continue their upward trajectory, and free agent newcomer Tyson Alualu can chip in first team quality reps in a supportive role, then Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt can turn a reasonable workload into consistent, superstar level play, and, hopefully, reduce the possibility of injury all around.
The issues here boil down to these: Can the supremely talented, but somewhat fragile Ryan Shazier get through the season injury free? Can Vince Williams step in and make us forget the loss of Lawrence Timmons? Can these two in tandem (Shake and Bake) provide the necessary stabilizing leadership as the defensive unit learns to work effectively together as an ensemble? Can Tyler Matakevich (and/or L.J. Fort, Steve Johnson) deliver as backups in the manner that Williams did in previous seasons? Can T.J. Watt deliver on his preseason promise and begin the appropriate phase out for James Harrison? Can Bud Dupree sustain and maybe improve on his 2016 second half performance? Has Anthony Chickillo taken a leap? Could this possibly be the most impressive Steelers linebacking group of the 21st Century?
What a difference a week makes. From a group that was characterized mainly by both the possibilities and dangers of youthful promise to, arguably, the most stable, balanced, experienced (in NFL terms) unit on the defense. On one hand, you have youth and promise in Artie Burns, Sean Davis, Brian Allen, phenom Mike Hilton and Cam Sutton, who collectively bring 2 years of NFL experience. On the other, there is Will Gay, Mike Mitchell, Robert Golden, Coty Sensabaugh, Joe Haden and J.J. Wilcox, collective experience 39 years. The D line is 22 years, and the linebackers 40 years (with Deebo alone accounting for over a third of the total). As of this time, starters and division of labor is unknown, but it will certainly be fascinating to watch.
You want more mystery, how about…
Of the three units, this was the most impressive in the preseason, but consider the following: Did you think that the one member of this draft class that got cut would be the long snapper? Are we going to be missing Gregg Warren? With Coates and Davis gone and Toussaint on the practice squad, who returns kicks? Punts? Otherwise, no worries.
Most seasons there is a subtext of what ifs concerning personnel in the form of missing pieces due to injury or a general lack of talent in a particular area. You have to be a real nitpicker to find the weaknesses of the team that Pittsburgh will be fielding in Cleveland. On defense, you must hope that Carnell Lake planned a great ice breaker exercise so the secondary could at least learn each other’s names. And can’t someone figure out a way to get Antonio Brown off the punt return unit?
Granted, it could all fall apart on one play, but how could you not be excited about the prospects for this team?